In the Trenches of Ukraine’s Forever War
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Pisky is as wronged a place as you will find in Ukraine. The village is on the front line that separates forces of the Ukrainian military from those of a secessionist statelet that calls itself the Donetsk People’s Republic. Backed by Russia, the D.P.R. has been at war with Ukraine for nearly eight years. Its fighters fire on the Ukrainian troops. The Ukrainians fire back. Or vice versa. No ground is taken, none ceded. The combatants rarely set eyes on one another. Rockets miss their targets and land in Pisky instead, the explosions echoing through the frames of the already-shattered homes and what was once the nave of the church. The priest fled years ago. So did most of the villagers.
Some rockets do find their targets. On a morning in early August, Volodymyr Veryovka and Yaroslav Semenyaka, soldiers in a Ukrainian Army company stationed at Pisky, were ordered to drive a freight truck down Lenin Road, which runs through Pisky and along the front, to a bridge in the village. The D.P.R. forces had been shelling every day through the summer, and the truck bucked in and out of fresh craters. The stretch Volodymyr and Yaroslav rode along now didn’t have the full cover of the tree line, and they knew they might be exposed to enemy batteries. There wasn’t much they could do about this. Loaded onto the truck’s bed was a crane, and Yaroslav could push the engine only so hard. So they talked.
They had met for the first time that day. Volodymyr was a railway engineer until he joined up at age 34, because, as he said, “It had to be done.” Ukraine needed all the fighters it could get no matter their age. He had even been commissioned an officer, though this was his first deployment. He had been in uniform only a few months.
Yaroslav, three years younger, was the veteran. He rushed to the front as soon as the shooting started, in April 2014, when the D.P.R. and a lesser twin in sedition, the neighboring Luhansk People’s Republic, broke off from Ukraine. The secessionist war had quickly consumed far eastern Ukraine, the region colloquially known as Donbas, and then spread west. Ukrainians like Yaroslav were unsure whether their young nation, independent at that point for barely two decades, would survive.
His father, who did dispiriting service in the Soviet Ground Forces in East Germany during the Cold War, tried to talk him out of it. But Yaroslav, swollen with the same patriotism Volodymyr now felt, asked him, “If not me, who?” He was one of thousands of Ukrainians, young and old, men and women, who rushed to defend their country then. He had been on the front since, fighting in some of the war’s pivotal battles. Roughly 13,000 Ukrainian soldiers and civilians had died.
On the front line near Marinka, Ukraine.Credit…Photograph by Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum, for The New York Times
But now the war was stalemated. The front line had barely shifted in years. Ukraine wasn’t relenting, but neither was it willing to go on the offensive to retake the seized territory. The enemy likewise refused to retreat. Yet it was clear to Yaroslav, and to anyone else paying attention, that Russia no longer had much use for the D.P.R. or L.P.R. It hadn’t fully annexed them, as it had Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, instead leaving the statelets in a kind of limbo of national identity: part Russian, part Ukrainian, generally miserable.
While the people there waited to learn their fates, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, who was elected in 2019 on the promise of restoring Donbas to the country, had made no progress in this regard and was increasingly unpopular. The European countries that had seen fit to reproach Russia over the war had now moved on. As for the United States, Ukrainians had held out hope that President Biden would be an improvement on Donald Trump, who courted President Vladimir Putin of Russia and tried to block military aid to Ukraine. Biden was taking a harder line with Putin, but when the two met earlier in the summer and Zelensky tried to interpose on the summit with dire warnings about the war, he was ignored.
As the stalemate dragged on, Yaroslav felt that even the Ukrainian Army had become indifferent to soldiers like him. On visits home, he told his father and fiancée that his will to fight had run dry. He had put in his papers. He had bought a house and renovated it. Soon he would be there, tending his vegetable garden.
It wasn’t long after Yaroslav told Volodymyr he’d gotten engaged that the first rocket came in. It missed the truck, crashing into the trees just behind. Volodymyr didn’t know what happened. Before he could ask, Yaroslav was opening his door and leaping from the cab. Volodymyr followed.
The second rocket also missed the truck but hit something. Volodymyr came to on his stomach. He was by the bushes on the roadside, unaware of how he got there. He looked at his right sleeve. It was soaked through with blood. He felt a hot wetness dripping over his left cheek. Looking up, he saw Yaroslav, still standing. He wondered why.
The third rocket hit the truck. This time, when Volodymyr opened his eyes, the vehicle was in flames. So were the bushes around him. Yaroslav lay on his back.
Volodymyr crawled to him. He grabbed hold of Yaroslav’s shirt. He tried to pull him from the road, but Yaroslav was heavy, and Volodymyr had the use of only his left arm. Blood poured into his eye.
He dragged Yaroslav away from the flames. He didn’t have the strength to move him any farther.
I was at a trenchworks on the far side of Lenin Road, with a group of soldiers, when we heard the rockets explode and looked up to see black smoke billowing above the tree line. We rushed over. We found the truck still in flames and the road enveloped in smoke.
At company headquarters, the commander told me that the truck was hit with a guided anti-tank rocket. Volodymyr was en route to the hospital, Yaroslav’s body to the morgue.
Some soldiers and I went to Pisky, where I wanted to find someone who saw the attack. I’d barely entered the village when the notion that anyone might be there rendered itself ridiculous. Pisky looked like an oil painting of some previous war. The destroyed buildings were no longer just destroyed but ruins, their debris picturesque, saplings sprouting from the blast holes. I might have been looking at the aftermath of a battle on the Eastern Front in 1943. The most conspicuous signs of the current fighting were the fins of unexploded rockets poking out from the pavement, and even these looked decades old.
I came to a house that appeared, contrary to all reason, inhabited. The roof was collapsed, but there was a bicycle leaning on the fence, freshly chopped wood, the whines of cats. My calls of greeting were finally met with slurred shouts from within. Onto the porch shuffled a shirtless and mostly toothless man, the drawstring of his leisure pants barely clinging around his waist, a crucifix bouncing in the hair of his sunken chest.
“I was on the road when I saw a wrecked car,” he told me. “I tried to turn, and that’s when the goddamned rocket hit me.”
Inviting me in, Yuri continued his account, confessing that the rocket didn’t actually hit him but came close enough, knocking him from his bike. Though it is true that Yuri was very drunk. He remounted his bike, he said, and rode to the headquarters. “I goddamn told the men, ‘Go and get your guy, he is lying there, he’s goddamn shouting.’”
I tried to learn more about what he saw, but Yuri wanted to tell me about making a living in wartime Pisky. He should have been retired by now, he said, but he still had to ride around hiring himself out for yardwork. He was a fisherman, but with the river running along the front, that was too dangerous now. Anyway, there was no one left to sell fish to. From a pile of clothing he pulled the jacket he wore at the pipe factory where he worked before it was blown up in 2015.
“Ride the bike here, ride the bike there,” he said. “I’m just hustling.”
From the kitchen, his wife, Masha, 18 years his junior, yelled interjections. She sat on a stool peeling potatoes, the ash of her cigarette dangling precariously over the pot. He yelled back. They got in a yelling match. She was more sober than Yuri but not by much.
They got together early in the war, when people in Pisky were living in basements converted to bomb shelters. Eventually even the basements were destroyed by rockets, and their neighbors left their homes, along with about 800,000 other Ukrainians. Yuri and Masha stayed. They might consider leaving, she told me, but where would they go? And with what money? They couldn’t even afford to fix the roof.
“Everything is ruined,” she said. “It’s leaking. What is the point anyway?”
Back at the company headquarters, which hunkered in a bombed-out Soviet-era apartment building, with the truck still burning, a group of men played cards. A press officer took photographs — not of the smoldering wreckage yards away but of a soldier sitting at a table handling, of all things, an antique crank-powered field telephone. I seriously wondered whether a movie was being filmed until I learned that the phone wasn’t an antique. Or rather it was, but a functioning one. The army installed the old phones after learning that the enemy had the use of high-end Russian electronic surveillance. I would see the wooden-and-brass boxes and their spools of black wire stretching through trenches up and down the front.
“Crank it,” the press officer directed the soldier. “Now talk.” He did a creditable impression of a radio man making an urgent call to the front in Stalingrad.
Combat troops get inured to death, but Yaroslav’s comrades seemed to me beyond inured, insensible. The attack on the truck hadn’t slowed time down, as violence normally does. Time here felt as though it had slowed long before.
Last month, Russia began massing troops on its border with Ukraine next to Donbas. Putin said he was responding to Ukrainian provocations and accused the United States of bringing “missiles to our home, to the doorstep of our home.” There have long been NATO missiles in Ukraine, and he wasn’t specific, though he probably had in mind the Javelin anti-tank missiles sent in the fall by the United States, which has been aiding the Ukrainian military since the war’s start. Putin’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, claimed Russia had proof that American mercenaries were delivering chemical weapons to Donbas in tanks. NATO cautioned that military action by Russia would “carry a heavy price,” and the Biden administration threatened a new regime of sanctions.
Diplomats and journalists warned of a possible invasion. Their worries were amplified when Russia sent troops into Kazakhstan during the first week of January to put down protests. But Putin’s saber-rattling at Ukraine, like the missiles, isn’t new. This is Russia’s second buildup in a year and only the latest in a series of feints since the war in Donbas began. It appears to be part of Russia’s larger pursuit, in Ukraine and elsewhere in the region, of hybrid warfare: the furthering of political aims through a mixture of military action, sponsored insurgency, cyber war and misinformation, a strategy it refined in Ukraine in 2014.
But the war in Donbas is hybrid in another sense. It is both an invasion and a secession, an incursion by an aggressive enemy but also a species of civil war. The rebellion of the D.P.R. and L.P.R. has lasted this long because it has exposed deep cracks in Ukrainian society. And while the war is regional and intimate, its front is also the front in a revived global struggle, between an ever more assertive Russia and the West.
The crisis in Donbas originates in the 2010 election to the presidency of Ukraine of Viktor Yanukovych, the longtime political boss of Donbas. For years before his election, Ukraine had grown steadily closer to the West, a trend that pleased progressive and nationalistic Ukrainians but displeased conservative Russophiles like Yanukovych. He reversed course, restoring the country’s relationship with Russia. When he scuttled an economic agreement with the European Union in fall 2013, progressive Ukrainians reacted with demonstrations, first in Kyiv and then around the country. Matters turned violent, and by the end of the Euromaidan, as the demonstrations came to be known, about a hundred civilians and more than a dozen police officers were dead.
Ukrainians who supported Euromaidan called it the Revolution of Dignity. To them, Yanukovych and the security forces were to blame. But to many other Ukrainians, particularly in places like Donbas, where attachment to Russia runs deep, the reality seemed the reverse. What they saw was vicious young people being egged on, if not outright organized — as Russian news assured them — by the West.
Yanukovych fled to Russia on Feb. 22, 2014. Five days later, Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula. Overwhelmed, the Ukrainian government did not fight. Within three weeks, Crimea was annexed. Ukraine’s Western allies declined to intervene, instead imposing sanctions on Russia. The invasion put an end to whatever rapprochement the West and Russia had effected to that point.
Soon after in Donbas, counterprotests against Euromaidan transformed into an armed uprising against the Ukrainian national government. It was led by a mixture of Ukrainians and Russian nationals, including current and former members of the Russian security services and military, some of whom had taken part in the invasion of Crimea. Within weeks, the D.P.R. and L.P.R. had proclaimed their existence. Hasty referendums to declare them independent of Ukraine were held and passed with 89 percent of the vote in the D.P.R. and 96 percent in the L.P.R., at least according to the secessionist leaders.
Attempts at political secession spread as far as Odessa to the south and Kharkiv to the west. Residents of Kyiv started air-raid drills. Fearing the whole country might soon be occupied, people like Yaroslav Semenyaka went to the front. With an ad hoc force of regulars and volunteers, Ukraine counterattacked, pushing the secessionists back toward the border. The Russian military responded with artillery and airstrikes. Tanks without number plates carried soldiers without insignia — the “little green men,” as they came to be known. Intense combat persisted until late 2015, when the front line solidified. The war has been essentially deadlocked since.
Putin is open about annexing Crimea. Beyond conceding that Russian intelligence officers were in eastern Ukraine at the beginning of the war, however, he refuses to admit a formal Russian role in Donbas. He’ll say only that Russian volunteers have crossed the border to help with an indigenous uprising and protect “Russian culture.” It is a grope at plausible deniability that is implausible in at least two ways.
The first is that Russia very obviously wields great power in the D.P.R. and L.P.R. and has done so since 2014. A lot of official propaganda but little in the way of genuine information escapes the statelets, and foreign organizations are mostly forbidden to work in them. The little we do know comes mainly from firsthand accounts, social media and a handful of humanitarian reports. According to the D.P.R.’s and L.P.R.’s official websites, their government leaders are Ukrainian. But according to defectors and released prisoners with whom I spoke, Russia’s hand is everywhere plain to see.
The ruble has replaced the Ukrainian hryvnia. Residents are made to apply for Russian passports and relinquish their Ukrainian ones. They vote in Russian elections, though it appears that most of the three to four million people (a very rough estimate) who live in the territories are not afforded full Russian citizenship. The vast and oppressive security apparatus is managed by Russian and Ukrainian agents. The teaching of the Ukrainian language is forbidden, as is the celebration of Ukrainian holidays. Defectors describe increasingly wretched circumstances — a scarcity of work and goods, failing social services — but also a persistent hope among devoted Russophiles that Putin will eventually incorporate them and life will improve. Before 2020, people could cross in and out of the statelets with ease. Since the beginning of the pandemic, only two crossings have been open.
The partition of Donbas has split Ukrainian families and neighbors physically, with some members ending up in the D.P.R. or L.P.R., others in Ukraine proper. It has also split them ideologically. Before 2014, Ukrainian patriotism and Russophilia could exist alongside each other, if not harmoniously then at least not violently. But with the war, Ukrainians, especially those in the east, had to decide once and for all where their allegiances lay. A father supported secession while a son went off to join the Ukrainian Army. A wife plotted to escape the L.P.R. while her husband was content to stay. You hear these stories constantly in Donbas.
The second way in which Putin’s denial of involvement in Donbas is implausible is this: Ukrainian secessionists aren’t interested in playing along with his fiction. Though the secessionist movement in Donbas rose to the surface eight years ago, it had been simmering for a generation, since the day in 1991 when Ukrainians voted to become independent of the Soviet Union. The vote, which passed overwhelmingly, including in Donbas, was the final nail in the coffin of the U.S.S.R. It wasn’t long before economic devastation and fumbling governance made many Ukrainians regret their choice. A defining trait of modern Ukraine, that regret is felt with particular bitterness in Donbas. Though it was provoked by Russia and led in large part by Russians, the secession was successful because Russophile Ukrainians participated in it at every turn and on every level: Members of the country’s own security services, politicians, officials and businesspeople, down to miners, metalworkers, pensioners.
One initial supporter of secession was a woman named Kateryna, whom I met last summer in Kyiv. She had recently left the D.P.R. Kateryna told me it was true that Russian propaganda flooded Donetsk, where she lived, when the war began, selling the story that bloodthirsty Ukrainian fascists were converging on Donbas to destroy it and the Russian language. Laughable as this was, she said, people bought it. Even if they hadn’t, however, the choice to secede felt “natural.” “It seemed to me at the time that it would be better to join Russia,” Kateryna said.
When I asked what her reasoning was, she said there wasn’t much reason. It was just the popular sentiment. “There was just sort of this hope that Russia was a big, great, powerful country. We thought, let’s go there.” But seven years later, without work or prospects, she left.
To Ukrainians who think as Kateryna once did, Russia’s formal role in Donbas is precisely the point. They have no more use for independent republics than they had for an independent Ukraine. Though secessionists, what they want isn’t separation so much as reunification — with Russia.
Today the Ukraine government denies that the D.P.R. or L.P.R. exists, calling them “temporarily occupied territories.” The boundary separating them from Ukraine is not a border or a front line but the “administrative line.” That line extends for roughly 250 miles north to south, cutting off the eastern corners of the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts and with them about 6,500 square miles of Ukraine along the Russian border. Civilians like Yuri and Masha in Pisky, who live hard by the front on the Ukrainian side, are in what’s known by the Joint Forces Operation, the Ukrainian military entity that oversees the front, as the Red Zone. Some towns along the front resemble Pisky, their homes and public buildings destroyed. Others have been partly rebuilt. Aside from these obvious signs, the line and the Ukrainian positions along it are mostly hidden from view: forest trenchworks, observation posts beneath camouflage netting, firebases in abandoned factories, headquarters concealed in the husks of apartment buildings.
For land mass, Ukraine is the second-largest country in Europe after Russia, but since the Donetsk airport was demolished in the fighting, the only way to get to the front is overland. From Kyiv, it is a 500-mile journey on indifferent roads, which I made in August. You pass through the vast grain fields that once fed imperial Russia, later so coveted by Joseph Stalin that he starved and killed millions of Ukrainians to get at them. You pass over the sites of some of the worst battles and most hideous massacres of World War II. Approaching Donbas, the wheat gives way to sunflowers, and in the warm months, the florets lend the atmosphere a golden tone.
Finally, you emerge into hill country. The horizon is broken up by smokestacks and the headframes of mines, and the gold is cut with a gray haze. The hills stand on their own and are strangely pyramidal; it’s like driving into Giza. Then you see why: The hills are in fact the decades-old culm banks of the coal mines. Some rise hundreds of feet. Many are covered over in shrubbery and trees.
Many of the mines are abandoned or destroyed. Aesthetically, Donbas looks stuck in time, somewhere between Khrushchev and Brezhnev, all but taunting the foreign visitor with its unrectified Sovietness. Monuments to the Great Patriotic War are everywhere. The apartment blocks are insistently drab, the housecoats threadbare, the haircuts practical. The sidewalks are outlined by rusted overground gas pipelines and the roads dominated by boxy old Lada sedans and Dnepr motorcycles, often equipped with sidecars.
Many Ukrainians in Donbas are wholly or partly ethnically Russian and, what is more important, culturally Russian. They speak Russian. In school, they were taught a patriotic version of Soviet history. They watch Russian TV and read Russian books and gather on Russian social media. A man from Luhansk told me of life there before the occupation: “It wasn’t influenced by Russia. It was Russia.”
When Russia sent troops to the border early last year, the point was unclear: Was it a warning to the newly inaugurated President Biden? A reminder to Ukraine that Russia could overrun it at any time? Some of the troops eventually withdrew, but D.P.R. and L.P.R. forces undertook a campaign of increased bombing and sniping that persisted through the summer. Its aim, too, was unclear, in both senses. Soldiers were dying, and a lot of civilians were being hit. The Ukrainian soldiers I spoke with agreed that the fire was probably more symbolic than strategic. Aug. 24 would mark the anniversary of Ukrainian independence. The enemy showed off its artillery every year at this time, but this was the 30th anniversary, and they seemed to want to be especially disparaging.
Two days after Yaroslav Semenyaka was killed in Pisky, I was near Krasnohorivka, a Red Zone town a few miles to the southwest that was controlled by Ukrainian forces. I was awakened at dawn by the thumps of incoming artillery. A rocket had hit an apartment building in Krasnohorivka. When I arrived at the building later that morning, soldiers and local officials were gathered outside. A group of neighbors stood on a walkway, gazing up at the third story. A gaping hole was in the exterior. Bent rebar hung from what had been a balcony.
But it took me a while to notice all that. After years of fighting and stray rockets, the whole edifice was beaten up. Shrapnel scars were everywhere; half the balconies had been torn off at some point. Some had been rebuilt, others covered over with plywood or plastic tarpaulin.
The dark stairwell smelled distinctly of explosives and faintly of old plumbing. The landing outside Apartment No. 83 was smeared with blood. Above the blood a woman in a floral housecoat stood in what had been her doorway, as though awaiting guests.
“Come in, admire,” she said wryly. “We’ve cleaned up some, but the fact remains.”
The tiny apartment was decorated with color-tinted family portraits and wallpaper so old it looked as though it had soaked into the walls. A coal stove squatted in the kitchen next to a Ukrainian Army press officer who was photographing the blown-out windows with his phone.
Larisa wore her short white hair swept up, and she had military-grade posture and the frankness to match. She and her husband had just gotten out of bed when the rocket hit. “I was on the toilet when the ceiling collapsed on me,” she said. He had been having tea in his underwear in the sitting room. She heard him bellowing. “He was saying: ‘Help me! I’m being crushed!’”
She pushed aside the splinters of the door and went to the sitting room. It was all smoke and dust. She couldn’t see him. Reaching in, she found his outstretched hands. She dragged him to the landing. She looked down and saw red on her hands and red dripping onto the floor. “He was completely covered in blood.”
At the hospital, the doctors found that his liver had been punctured by shrapnel. His arms were shredded, and he was deafened. He was conscious, but when she tried to talk to him on the phone, he couldn’t hear her.
Larisa showed me the sitting room. Ceiling tiles dangled; a fish tank and a TV lay in pieces. The sofa set was covered in the plaster and wood shards of the balcony, which had probably saved her husband’s life — without it, the rocket might have exploded in the room. Where the balcony had been was the gaping hole. The remains of stuffed animals lay on the floor. Normally her daughter and grandchildren would have been sleeping here.
“It was sheer luck they were away,” she said.
A lap dog circled Larisa’s feet. He had only just summoned the courage to come back into the apartment. She opened the dresser. Two cats cowered on a pile of clothing.
I asked how it was she was so calm. “Because this has been going on for such a long time,” she said.
A family from downstairs was cleaning, carrying out buckets of debris. Another neighbor mopped the blood from the landing. A local official interviewed Larisa and wrote a report. He told her he had contacted the Red Cross, which would bring medicine. Getting help fixing the apartment was another matter. If it was determined that she qualified for state assistance, he told her, “the government may take ownership of the apartment.”
She told him the government already owned the apartment, technically. In the Soviet Union, citizens were given state-owned apartments. Her mother originally got this one. When Ukraine became independent, the new government encouraged people to take ownership of their homes. Larisa had never gotten around to it.
She looked back on those days before independence with longing, she told me. Moscow had taken care of people. You had to work hard, of course, but in return the state gave you housing, food, medical care, schooling. On its own, Ukraine had been a disaster. Like just about everyone she knew in Krasnohorivka, Larisa was an admirer of Viktor Yanukovych. She had opposed Euromaidan, just as many in Donbas had. They had also opposed the mass demonstrations, known as the Orange Revolution, that arose in 2004, when Yanukovych first stood for the presidency and lost. When I asked her when things started to go wrong, a neighbor of Larisa’s who was keeping her company interjected: “When Gorbachev started Perestroika.”
The neighbor hinted that she suspected the rocket may not have come from the D.P.R. at all but was, in fact, Ukrainian. That’s what people were saying on Russian social media.
Outside, her neighbors were of the same opinion and less demure about it. A local news crew had arrived and was filming a Ukrainian soldier who had salvaged the bent fin of the rocket. He held it up for the camera. The reporter directed him to walk away and then walk back toward the camera dramatically. Watching this, the neighbors grew indignant.
“Donetsk has never shot at us, ever!” a woman yelled at the soldiers. “They haven’t fired for two years!”
“Look at them, taking pictures of themselves,” an older, gnomish woman said. Between the thick lenses in her glasses, which made her eyes immense, and her small size, she had a prophetic air about her. She confirmed her friend in slow, enigmatic phrases. “What is there to take pictures of? A person will be saved, or he won’t be.”
“Good for them,” the first woman said. “How many people can they kill? The bitches. Go shoot your parents. And they congratulate us on our liberation. Liberation from what? From gas? From light? Water? From everything. From normal life.”
“From civilization,” a man added.
“And they say it’s the D.P.R., always the D.P.R.,” she said. “We hear who’s shooting. We know how much you’re shooting!”
“We’re not deaf,” the older woman said.
“They mock us,” the first woman said. She insisted she knew where the offending rocket had come from — a Ukrainian tank near her building. She had seen it, parked there plain as day. There had also been a personnel carrier, she said. It ran over tomatoes she had planted with her grandmother. She would have filed a complaint about the tomatoes, but she didn’t want to be jailed.
“Ruins, our city,” she said. “We used to live beautifully and wonderfully. There were shops, there was everything.”
“When we became Ukraine,” the older woman said, “that was the goddamned end.”
Donbas was once a refuge for ethnic Ukrainians, Russians and others who wanted to escape the reach of the Russian Empire. “Ukraine” is derived from a word for borderland, and that was true most of all in what is now the country’s east. It was the steppe frontier between the czars and the Ottoman sultans. It was also underlaid by vast seams of coal, whose extraction was industrialized in the 19th century by European engineers.
During the Russian Revolution and civil war, the mines and metalworks of Donbas were coveted by the Red and White Russians alike. In 1918, the Bolsheviks created a puppet Soviet republic in Donbas. (It lasted only a few months, but the D.P.R. would invoke it a century later.) The region was devastated by the German and Soviet armies in World War II, in which seven million people died in Ukraine. After the war, Moscow repopulated and rebuilt Donbas. Its miners were held up as the beau ideal of Soviet manhood, and it became a kind of set piece for the worker’s utopia. Because of Donbas’s importance to the economy, life there was better than in much of the U.S.S.R. At the same time, Stalin, like the czars, put down the Ukrainian nationalist cause and suppressed Ukrainian culture. No one knows how many of his victims lay in the mine shafts.
Some days before Yaroslav Semenyaka was killed, I was in what was once a prosperous town, Zolote, built around a complex of mines in the Red Zone, just outside the L.P.R. Only a few of the mines are still open. The rest were abandoned before the current war or wrecked in it. Looming over Zolote were a deserted headframe and hoist house and the grown-over culm bank, reminders to the villagers of the life they once had.
A Ukrainian Army company from Lviv stationed in Zolote had been taking heavy artillery fire all summer. From the ground around the command post protruded the fins of unexploded ordnance. The post was in what had been the mine’s administrative building, which still exhibited the expense and artistic flair the Soviet Union put toward its mining sector. The stairwell was decorated with glass-tile mosaics. Anti-Putin literature and patriotic artwork sent by Ukrainian schoolchildren were now tacked on the walls. A smiling marker child stood next to three smiling marker soldiers. A green crayon tank fired a perforated line into a stick building containing a stick figure lying on its side. The caption read Come back alive, our defenders!
The company commander told me that the day before, he counted 70 120-milimeter rounds falling onto and around the village. It was the most artillery he had ever seen, and precise. “It was like jeweler’s work,” he said. “When 70 shells arrive on top of you like that, you don’t lift your head. You just lay down on the floor of the trench.”
There may have been some point to all of it, but he suspected it was for show. Not only was there the extra shelling in anticipation of Ukraine Independence Day going on up and down the line, but the day before was Russian Air Force Day.
The commander called himself Volodya, though by now I’d learned that the soldiers gave journalists fake names as a matter of course. A 23-year-old lieutenant, he aped the imperiousness of a middle-aged colonel. Wearing camouflage mesh leisure pants, a T-shirt stretched over a bulging gut and a bushy chin-curtain-style beard, he sat in a folding chair, smoking, a pack of Parliaments and a cellphone tucked deep into his groin. I asked if he’d been permitted to fire back. Though company commanders were sometimes allowed to return artillery fire at will, they often had to wait for approval from higher up.
“I will not answer this question,” he said. “This is a painful question.” He continued: “My soldiers are quite patriotic, war-minded. They want to fight, to protect their turf. They don’t panic. In fact, they want to move forward and take our land back. They’re just waiting for the command.”
“But the command never comes?”
“How can I say it? They’re not disappointed, but maybe they want something more.”
As though to underscore his point, we heard incoming rockets and the cracks of automatic rifle fire.
I entered the trenchworks, hidden by the forest, that surrounded Zolote. I spoke with the young soldiers manning fire positions and observation posts. “In the beginning of the war, we didn’t stay in one place for more than two days,” one rifleman told me. He started as a tank commander. He hadn’t known what was happening, who was where, everything moving so fast, but at least he got to fight. Now he knew exactly where the war stood and what was happening — nothing — and he felt useless. “You hardly see anyone. We’re just waiting for something unknown.”
The farther into the trenchworks I got, the further back into history I seemed to go. The earthen walls were bolstered with thoughtful wood planking. Men peered over the rim with antique periscopes. They waited by a hand-crank field telephone that didn’t ring. One man had a Japanese revolver from the early 20th century — a replica, it turned out, but no less anachronous for that. If it had hired set decorators to recreate the Western Front in 1915, the army could hardly have done better.
“It is like the First World War,” a tall, gangly man said, voicing what I was thinking. Having given up on formal battle dress, he wore a black hoodie that framed unkempt hair and a left earlobe tattooed with the number 14 — his age when his grandfather, who raised him, died, he told me. He had once been fired with the cause, but now, he said, “It’s very boring. I’m just going through the motions. Sometimes I get depressed. I fold my arms and want to give up on the war.”
Misha had given up a lot to get here. He was Russian and crossed the border to fight. Fascinated by war from an early age, he said his favorite book was “Storm of Steel,” the memoir of the German World War I hero Ernst Jünger. In the spring of 2014, when he was 19, Misha announced that he was going to the front to volunteer for Ukraine. His father, a veteran of the Soviet Army, objected. The Ukrainians were wrong, his father said. Donbas was Russian land. In fact, all Ukraine was.
Misha disagreed. He believed in self-determination, and it was obvious to him that Putin was backing the secessionists in order to enslave Ukraine. “Russia is now an empire like any other, like America,” he told me. “They always colonize other countries, and the policy is always clear. To invade, to conquer, to destroy.”
He has been on the front ever since. He lost his Russian citizenship and wasn’t able to return to Russia for his father’s funeral. If he went back, he would surely be imprisoned. Now a Ukrainian citizen, he was fed up, but he didn’t know what else to do. “I live for war,” he said.
I was a bit confused by Misha’s story. You don’t often meet a Russian obsessed with Ernst Jünger, an author dear to fascists. But I admired his courage — or I did until I learned later that the 14 on Misha’s ear was, in fact, a sign of his membership in C14, a Russian white-supremacist group.
Among the volunteers who had come to Ukraine’s aid at the beginning of the war were a number of white supremacists from Russia, Europe and America. No one knows just how many. They didn’t dislike Putin so much because he was an imperialist as because his policies, they believed, oppressed white people. Ukraine isn’t particularly known for its racism or even, any longer, for its anti-Semitism. (President Zelensky is Jewish.) But in 2014, the country was fighting for its life and accepted just about anyone willing to help. Many had stayed and, like Misha, been accepted.
“I am for the white race,” Misha told my interpreter in Russian. Maybe wisely, she waited until we were out of the trench to translate that.
At the command post, the lieutenant said a begrudging hello to a woman who was leaving her home, a few yards away. I asked about his relations with the villagers.
“Communicating with these people, it’s a painful topic,” he said. They were provincial. All they knew was mining and drinking. To them, Lviv, where he was from, was Europe. Many of them were unpatriotic. “There are the people who have always been for Ukraine, and there are those who voted with the secessionists in the referendum. They are blind kittens.”
When the woman, whose name was Maryna, returned, I greeted her. She invited me inside. Walking into her garden was like entering an oasis; it was difficult to believe we were on a front. The garden was ripe with melons, apricots and tomatoes. On a picnic table below the trellises of a small grape arbor, Maryna put out tea and sweets. She would have put out raspberries too, she explained, but when she went to pick them that morning, a rocket landed nearby, and she went back in the house.
Maryna lived there with her sister-in-law, Valia, who joined us. The family went back three generations in Zolote. We got on the subject of the anniversary of independence. They said they vividly remembered that heady winter, 30 years before, when Ukrainians voted to leave the Soviet Union. The two women were for it. Maryna even helped with the balloting, she said.
“People had hope,” Valia said. “We hoped for the best. Ukraine is a rich, good country. There is a lot of everything in Ukraine. But here’s what happened. As they say, now we have what we have.”
The war made a bad situation worse. For months they lived in the root cellar. Maryna’s father was disabled, and they carried him underground every day.
“We didn’t know who the secessionists were,” Maryna said. “We were all the same, and then we woke up one morning, and suddenly the people down the road were secessionists. And we became God knows who.” Now they were the enemy. “The soldiers say, ‘You are all secessionists here.’”
They didn’t have the means to move. And even if they did, where would they go? Maryna uttered a phrase I heard again and again from people in Donbas: “Who needs us?”
Outside, I found the lieutenant still in his folding chair, still smoking, stroking his beard, flanked by subordinates.
Understand the Escalating Tensions Over Ukraine
A brewing conflict. Antagonism between Ukraine and Russia has been simmering since 2014, when the Russian military crossed into Ukrainian territory, annexing Crimea and whipping up a rebellion in the east. A tenuous cease-fire was reached in 2015, but peace has been elusive.
A spike in hostilities. Russia has recently been building up forces near its border with Ukraine, and the Kremlin’s rhetoric toward its neighbor has hardened. Concern grew in late October, when Ukraine used an armed drone to attack a howitzer operated by Russian-backed separatists.
Ominous warnings. Russia called the strike a destabilizing act that violated the cease-fire agreement, raising fears of a new intervention in Ukraine that could draw the United States and Europe into a new phase of the conflict.
The Kremlin’s position. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has increasingly portrayed NATO’s eastward expansion as an existential threat to his country, said that Moscow’s military buildup was a response to Ukraine’s deepening partnership with the alliance.
Rising tension. Western countries have tried to maintain a dialogue with Moscow. But administration officials recently warned that the U.S. could throw its weight behind a Ukrainian insurgency should Russia invade.
“Did she tell you how she was one of the main secessionists?” he asked. “Did she mention how she helped organize the referendum? She was even tried for it. Great woman.” The soldiers laughed a little too hard. “Here’s what you do: Dig a hole, fill it with lime, throw all these people in it. Then take a tractor and cover them over with earth.”
Looking at my interpreter, he said, “Don’t translate that.”
When I returned to Zolote the next week, Maryna was injured. She had been returning from the home of a neighbor, an old man she looked after, walking next to a fence, when a rocket came in. She dropped into a crouch. Shrapnel tore into her shoulder and back.
I looked at the fence. The fresh holes were at eye level. If she hadn’t ducked, she’d be dead.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, only one checkpoint has remained consistently open between Ukraine and the secessionist territories, in Stanytsia Luhanska, a town about 90 miles northeast of Pisky. It is in the northernmost sector of the Red Zone, outside the L.P.R., near the Russian border. In the war’s first days, images of civilians dashing across a destroyed bridge in Stanytsia Luhanska, dodging fire, were broadcast around the world, calling to mind Sarajevo.
When I visited in August, Stanytsia Luhanska called to mind Cold War Germany. In front of the border checkpoint stood a large white obelisk and a red Soviet star. A plaque read, “In memory of the 242 prisoners of war who were executed in this village in 1942.” The checkpoint had, like so much else on the front, been formalized. The bridge was rebuilt. There were freshly painted white storm-fencing, orderly queues, converted cargo containers housing A.T.M.s and NGO offices, cafes. Taxi drivers waited to pick up fares.
The Ukrainian side of the checkpoint was crowded with people who were waiting to cross into the L.P.R., but most people were going the other direction: to see family, to check on property they owned, to go shopping. Goods were less expensive and of better quality on the Ukrainian side.
A family waited for a minibus at a cafe. The parents, carrying overnight bags, a large bottle of water and a plastic bag of snacks, stood protectively over their young son and daughter, who sat silent and watchful at a table in the shade of an umbrella. They were going to Severodonetsk to visit relatives, the mother, who introduced herself as Maria, told me. They had waited nearly three hours to get across from Luhansk, where they lived.
Her son carried a small guitar case. I asked about it. She said he was learning piano too. “He likes to play patriotic Ukrainian songs.” At this the boy winced. I now noticed he looked frightened. So did his sister.
“The truth is, we’re not going back,” Maria confided, unprompted. “We’re leaving Luhansk for good.”
It was as though she had been wanting to tell someone for ages. Now that she’d said it, relief seemed to overtake her. I asked why they decided to defect. Without hesitating, looking at her children, Maria said, “To give them a future.”
Her husband eyed me. He clearly didn’t want Maria speaking with me, but before he could say so, their minibus arrived. My interpreter and I offered to drive them to Severodonetsk instead. They could get their tickets refunded. Even the husband agreed to this readily. They had sunk everything they had into their escape and needed all the spare cash they could get.
Once we were driving, Maria poured forth. They had been planning their escape for years, she said, slowly moving their possessions out, trip by trip. On the last trip, they had found an apartment in a city in central Ukraine where they’d never been before. They had seen it only on a map. It was near an industrial center where her husband, Oleksandr, would hopefully find work in a plant. In Luhansk, he was a miner. When his mine closed, he went to work in one of the illegal open-pit mines. It was absurdly dangerous work, and many of his friends died. Maria was a freelance tutor. Between what she received from her late father’s pension and what they saved, they had just enough to make the down payment on their new home. She had enrolled their son, Andriy, 10, and daughter, Kira, 6, in a school.
The farther from the checkpoint we got, the more excited Maria seemed to get about the future, and this in turn kept bringing her back to the indignities of life under occupation.
“Everything was decrepit,” she said. “In Luhansk, you could take a person who had been healthy and prosperous, and soon they would become a drunk.”
Salaries were a fraction of what they were before the war and prices higher. There were constant electricity outages, food shortages, shortages of everything. What goods there were on shelves were Russian castoffs. There were even food lines, as in the worst days of the Soviet Union. Public services had deteriorated or disappeared entirely. Garbage piled up in the streets. The hospitals were falling apart, and many doctors had defected or died in the pandemic.
Most of the people Maria knew, even her own family members, longed to be absorbed into Russia and blamed Ukraine for their misery. She compared them to abused girlfriends. The harder Russia hit them, the faster they scurried back to him. She had arrived at a conclusion about Russians: “They don’t need freedom. They don’t even want it.”
The propaganda had been everywhere. Kira and her classmates had been made to dress up in military uniforms and sing Soviet war anthems in their nursery-school class. Kira was a “war baby,” Maria said: She was born under the occupation and didn’t know anything else. She was accustomed to seeing guns every day. There were armed guards outside her nursery school, their fingers on the triggers. “Why do they need to have their fingers on the trigger in front of a nursery school?” Andriy could slightly remember a time before and was worse affected. He couldn’t sleep, was frightened all the time, even paranoid. When Maria put on Ukrainian music at home, he ran around the house closing the windows and begging her to turn it down, worried someone would hear.
Maria’s problem wasn’t getting to sleep so much as what happened once she was there. She had acquired a recurring nightmare. A man is pointing a rocket-propelled grenade at her. She screams: “Shoot me! Shoot me!” He pulls the trigger. She bolts awake.
Andriy and Kira listened, whispering questions to their parents. They, too, had relaxed. Andriy peered out his window, not exactly in wonder, while Kira chewed from a giant chocolate bar.
Now it was Oleksandr who looked stricken. He hadn’t loathed life in Luhansk as Maria had. The lack of freedom didn’t bother him, she said, with what struck my ear as a mixture of affection and exasperation. She jokingly called him “the Secessionist.” He didn’t argue the point. He didn’t say much, except to occasionally push back on her complaints about the life they had left behind.
“I guess everyone dealt with the occupation differently,” Maria said. “They survived, they adjusted.”
“People went to bars,” he said.
“What bars? There was a 10 p.m. curfew.”
“11,” he said.
“OK, 11,” she said.
Oleksandr was thoughtful. “It’s scary to change everything,” he said, “to start all over again at 40.”
They still had a home in Luhansk and a car. His mother was still there. What would happen to her if the authorities learned of their defection? Families of defectors were interrogated for months and years, he’d heard. Sometimes they disappeared.
“You can’t criticize Russia,” Maria said. “Not even on the internet. Everyone is afraid.”
“What happens if you do?” I asked.
“They take you to one of the basements,” Oleksandr said.
Maria unburdened herself, but she didn’t drop her guard. She wouldn’t tell me their family name. When we arrived in Severodonetsk, she asked us to drop them at a bank. She didn’t want me seeing where they were staying.
“If you have to write a surname, say it’s Ivanov,” Oleksandr told me as he got out of the car and shook my hand. “That way, if I have to go back, they won’t shoot me.”
“Basement” is a word you hear often in Ukraine. It can have one of two meanings. It can refer to the basements that people fled to during the worst days of the war. Or it can mean what Oleksandr meant — the secret prisons in the D.P.R. and L.P.R. that are used for interrogation, torture and murder.
I spoke with a former prisoner, Stanislav Aseev, who was living in Makiyivka, a town outside the city of Donetsk. Makiyivka was occupied by D.P.R. forces in 2014 and is still occupied. Like just about everyone else in his town, he told me, he was raised with very little sense of being Ukrainian. He spoke Russian, he read Russian books, he watched Russian TV. When Russian news said that the Euromaidan protests were a coup backed by America, he believed it. When it said the independence movement in Donbas was genuine, he believed that. His friends joined the D.P.R. forces, thrilled by the idea of “killing fascists.”
It was hard to know who was in charge or what they intended, but Aseev saw with his own eyes the Russian agents around Makiyivka, the obviously foreign soldiers in unmarked uniforms. Then he started to notice that critics of the D.P.R. were disappearing. He began hearing about the basements. You could find yourself in one for something as simple as writing a Facebook post critical of Russia or the D.P.R.
“It took me a while to emerge from my indoctrination,” he said.
Aseev began writing pseudonymous dispatches for a Ukrainian website. They were widely read, and they found their way onto Russian social media. Getting bolder, he began adding photographs to his articles. One day in 2015, he was taking pictures in Donetsk’s city center when he was stopped by a policeman. Plainclothes agents arrived. He was bundled into a car, and a burlap bag was placed over his head. An agent told him, “You can’t imagine how many people we’ve beaten, thinking they were you.”
He was taken to the basement of a local government building. For weeks, Aseev was tortured and interrogated. He was beaten with truncheons. The wires of a crank-powered field telephone were strapped to his thumbs and ears, and he was shocked.
He noticed that while his captors were being directed by a Russian, they were Ukrainian. He was tried twice in a D.P.R. court for spying. The trials lasted a few minutes, and each ended in a 15-year sentence. Like his captors, the prosecutors and judges were Ukrainian. For the next two and a half years, he was moved through a series of prisons, including the most notorious, known as Izoliatsiia.
Described in a recent United Nations human rights report, Izoliatsiia was a perfect travesty of the Stalinist era. The torture chambers and solitary-confinement cells were in old nuclear fallout shelters. The prisoners were forced to sing Soviet anthems. The commandant was a “psychopath in the classic mold,” Aseev said. Most nights he would drink himself into a rage and then beat prisoners or order prisoners to beat one another while he watched. Aseev believes he also raped female prisoners.
It wasn’t just critics of the occupation who were inside. Many of his fellow prisoners were Ukrainians who had supported the occupation and joined D.P.R. forces. Some were Russian nationals who had volunteered, believing in the cause, he learned. Others had been mercenaries. The regime was already turning on itself, paranoid that even its devotees were spies or traitors.
Aseev was released in a prisoner exchange at the end of 2019. President Zelensky awarded him an apartment in Kyiv, where Aseev’s mother, who was interrogated repeatedly while he was imprisoned, recently joined him.
“The thing is, the Ukrainian government doesn’t know what it’s up against,” he told me. “They have this optimistic belief that they can end the war and free Donetsk and Luhansk. This isn’t going to happen. Russia has the resources to sustain this conflict for decades.”
The Ukrainian-controlled portions of Donbas are still shot through with secessionist sentiment. Many of the people who supported secession in 2014 are still around, including officials. Some of them still hold office. In an effort to purge Donbas of the worst offenders, the Zelensky government has suspended local elections in the region, a move that has earned rebukes from democracy advocates.
Ukrainian prosecutors have brought hundreds of cases against Ukrainians in Donbas for treason and sedition. Some of the defendants have fled to Russia, but many have stayed. Few have faced full trials, and only a handful have been sentenced. When I asked a judicial activist in Kyiv why this was, she said she believed the main reason was political. With Zelensky growing unpopular, the judges worried the next regime to take power in Ukraine might be another tied to Moscow. They didn’t want to risk their careers, never mind their lives.
Donbas offers little to Russia, which does not need the region’s coal or its sad vestiges of industry. Presumably the Kremlin does not want the burden of Donbas’s public-sector budgets or its pensioners. Unlike Crimea, home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Donbas has no strategic value — except as a platform for further menacing Ukraine — and no beach resorts.
What, then, does Russia want with it? Putin’s thinking has been so far removed from public scrutiny that any answer to that question is very conjectural. It depends on the drift of your Kremlinology, which in turn depends on your presumptions about his power. Russia analysts who are of the (prevailing) view that Putin approaches omnipotence ask what his realpolitik long con in Donbas can be. He’s always got one, their thinking goes. One possible explanation is electoral. Though Putin refuses to acknowledge an official Russian role in Donbas, the region has added an estimated 600,000 voters to the Russian rolls. If the results of last fall’s elections are to be believed, they support his United Russia party.
Those who class Putin with other world leaders — that is, as a mortal navigating among rivals — ask if Donbas doesn’t represent the rare miscalculation on his part. Euromaidan was a convenient pretext to invade Crimea, an idea long contemplated in the Kremlin. The Donbas operation was probably more impulsive, and it has met with a Ukrainian defiance few in Russia, or for that matter in Ukraine, would have predicted in 2014. Russian intentions there have seemed to evolve. Donbas has served variously as a bargaining chip with Western powers, a cudgel to hold over them, a hobbyhorse for the home audience and an albatross. Seizing Crimea increased Putin’s popularity hugely but only for a time. And while his ratings get a bounce with every southernly rattle of the saber, years of economic sanctions have the reverse effect.
Shortly before I arrived in Donbas, a remarkable open letter was published on the Kremlin website in Russian and English. That it bore Putin’s signature doesn’t mean he wrote it, but the 7,000-word letter did unfurl with the kind of party-congress loquacity this otherwise terse president sometimes indulges. “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” recounted the joint histories of Russia and Ukraine from the ninth century onward. Striking a conciliatory note, Putin lamented Bolshevik crimes in Ukraine (nothing of Stalin) and confessed that the war in Donbas was “in my mind our great common misfortune and tragedy.”
He went on to link Ukrainian nationalism to German fascism and to claim that “modern Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era.” When Ukraine became independent, it was “taken away” from its “historical motherland,” resulting in a disaster that culminated in Euromaidan. “Western countries directly interfered in Ukraine’s internal affairs and supported the coup,” he wrote. “Step by step, Ukraine was dragged into a dangerous geopolitical game aimed at turning Ukraine into a barrier between Europe and Russia.”
The letter led some observers to wonder whether Putin hasn’t so much directed events in Donbas as allowed them to progress at the hands of hard-liners in his orbit. That hard line may be defined, 20 years into his reign, by the worldview of Novorossiya. Originally a czarist term meaning New Russia, it has been revived by Russian ultranationalists to describe their project of reconstituting a Russian imperium.
Novorossiya is not about realpolitik. It is about history and pride. And while it is unclear just how committed Putin is to it, there is little question that Novorossiya is now part of Russian policy. Like the front line running down eastern Ukraine, it is regional fact. In addition to Donbas and Crimea, Russia has intervened in Georgia to prop up the republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and in Moldova to establish the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, usually known as Transnistria. In all, that is roughly 20,000 square miles of Europe carved off three different sovereign states since Putin first took national office. A form of Russian hybrid warfare was applied in all of these places. In other former Soviet republics such as the Baltic States, Russia carries on a relentless cyber war in an effort to hobble and discredit their governments.
To the proponents of Novorossiya, as to the Romanovs and the Bolsheviks and the Stalinists, Ukrainian independence is a misnomer. There is no distinct Ukrainian people or culture. There is no Ukraine. There is only Russia.
In 2014 and 2015, Russia and Ukraine signed the Minsk Protocols, which call for returning Donbas to Ukraine. There is evidence that Putin really wants that. But he insists the region take on a semiautonomous form that Zelensky can’t abide. Putin has not accepted Zelensky’s invitations to negotiate outside the Minsk language. Instead, twice in the last year, he has sent troops to the Ukrainian border and spoken of war. Now it’s not only Western Europe and the United States who are pushing back. In the fall, Russia’s sometime ally Turkey sent Kyiv a shipment of TB2 armed drones. This month, Estonia pledged to provide Ukraine with weapons. Days later, Russian and American diplomats began formal talks to resolve the crisis on the Ukrainian border. Ukraine was not invited.
On Aug. 24, a parade in Kyiv marked the 30th anniversary of Ukrai